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And the Beets go on: Finding your local food source

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Posted: Saturday, December 15, 2012 11:01 pm | Updated: 1:26 pm, Wed Apr 10, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — In this digital age of Facebook groups, LinkedIn and Nings, it’s refreshing to find a grassroots, hands-on, face-to-face assemblage of individuals dedicated to eating locally grown, healthy foods.

A new group billing itself “Beets, Meets and Wild Treats” recently formed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It is not limited to UAF folks, but is open to everyone.

The Beets were planted during an ethnoecology class taught by Craig Gerlach at UAF. “We’ve been talking about doing this for a year,” said Sarah Betcher, one of the three students in that class. The inaugural session, held in November, attracted 19 people, drawn together to share ideas and food. “I like the idea of the ability to network with like-minded people,” Betcher said.

Yes, beets have been on the menu each time the group gathers, along with homemade breads, pesto, molasses spiced custard, roasted vegetables, chocolate cake, lentil curry, salmon and kombucha infused with lowbush cranberries.

A main theme seems to be a desire to learn about wild and locally grown food, and how to harvest and prepare it. At the December meeting, people asked about making kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut, about butchering and processing meat and creating tinctures. Discussions included roasting dandelion roots for tea, which mushrooms are safe to eat, what grains grow in Alaska and how to store carrots.

The Beets plan to meet monthly throughout the school year and in the summer to get together to forage in the woods and tour local farms. Betcher said she hopes the group grows to include all age groups, families with children, hunters and high school students. “We welcome anyone with an interest in local food or who studies food sources or is really into food.”

There are no bylaws, rules or officers in Beets, and the folks attending hope it stays that way.

Craig Gerlach, the professor who sparked the formation of Beets with his ethnoecology class, said, “I like that it is student driven and not just students but people from the community. That’s really neat. With community buy-in stability is possible.”

Beets has the potential to create community-based interest in food systems and human/crop interactions, awareness of where food comes from, country foods and crops and livestock, Gerlach said. “They will find ways to put ideas into practice.”

His contribution is to organize a sausage-making workshop for the spring. The class will be led by a European sausage maker who utilizes the “nose to tail” philosophy of using every part of the animal as food. Already, 20 people have expressed interest in attending. “In general they (Beets) are raising awareness of the food systems and creating a community of people actively involved from the ground up,” Gerlach said.

Cameron Willingham, a UAF anthropology student and research technician for the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, is a founding member. “There are a lot of individual people making, finding their own food and preserving it,” he said. “The are doing it in isolation and we were getting a lot of requests for information.”

Willingham said the ethnoecology class that spurred Beets was one of the best courses he ever took and it connected him to others with similar interests in whole foods.

“My focus is more agriculture in Alaska, more agriculture jobs, more agricultural products,” he said. “If people want to start cottage industries and meet growers, then productive partnerships can come out of this.”

He admitted the renewed interest in local foods might be just the latest fashion right now. “But it’s one trend I’m excited to be a part of,” he said.

Willingham agrees with the “keep it loose” philosophy for the Beets. “We want to keep it open. We all bring something different to the table,” he said. “It’s up to the individuals to come up with their own goals.”

Adam King, a biochemistry student at UAF, said he was drawn to Beets because he loves to cook. “I’m into natural foods to substitute for manmade things,” he said. “We can learn by osmosis, see what we find interesting and ask questions.”

Katie DiCristina, a research technician at the Georgeson Botanical Garden, said she joined Beets simply because she was asked. “It seemed like a good thing to support,” she said. Her interests are foraging for wild foods and using locally grown food. “I’m here to support what the group wants,” she said.

Beets, Meets and Wild Treats has been meeting the first Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. on campus but will not meet Jan. 1. For more information, contact Willingham at cbwillingham@alaska.edu.

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu

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